Dial M for Murder (1954, Alfred Hitchcock)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Dial M for Murder is something of a crowd-pleaser, a theatrical suspense melodrama with elements of sexual intrigue that relies as much on its source material — a hit play by Frederick Knott — as on director Alfred Hitchcock’s way around a thriller and a claustrophobic set. It’s by far the stagiest of his single-set films (and it does in fact open things up slightly with a handful of scenes not shot within the living room of the London flat where virtually all of the action takes place, but they are largely insignificant), and set as it is on the fringes of high society — shot in color, even, the first time Hitchcock had done so in five years — it’s something of a slick relief from the director’s grim, uncompromising I Confess, which undoubtedly came as a relief to Warner Bros.

It is an absorbing entertainment, especially during the incredibly exciting first half, wherein a former tennis player and playboy schmoozer (Ray Milland) talks up, with incongruous calmness, an old college mate (a subtle Anthony Dawson) about having his wealthy wife (Grace Kelly) murdered. We already know, in typical Hitchcock fashion, that Kelly’s Margot is having an affair with an overly eager American writer named Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings, woefully miscast) — we watch her kiss both men in rapid succession in a brilliant, nearly wordless opening sequence. During the cat and mouse conversation that ends with threats of blackmail, the audience’s tension is expertly racked up until — by the peerless, tense, beautifully lit and cross-cut scene in which the deed is to be done — the screen seems to explode when, unexpectedly, Margot is too strong for her would-be strangler. As Hitchcock would later put it when conflating murder and editing, “scissors are the best way.”

Alas, because the film is a fairly faithful reproduction of a stage attraction, it becomes rather repetitive as the comparatively short running time passes; that first lengthy conversation is sweat-inducingly intense, but by the fourth or fifth similar scene of actors walking around the room talking — eventually the three stars are joined by John Williams as the world’s smarmiest police inspector — one can be forgiven for checking the proverbial broken watch, especially on repeat viewings. It helps little that the film’s convoluted conclusion requires an impossibly wordy over-explanation by the characters, with too many Hitchcock tropes — several errant keys, a stabbing, a stocking, an attempted stranging, and a criminal so dryly smooth he plans his own hangovers and pours everyone a drink when he’s caught — swirling into a clipped, awkward mess, very much like the whodunits he so frequently disdained. The story generally lacks the deeper psychology so beloved by Hitchcock; its characters are simply drawn, their motivations largely unmistakable and obvious.

All of this is inherent to the source, which leads one to wonder what attracted Hitchcock to this material; he’s clearly more inspired by the bravura sequence of the attempted murder and Margot’s act of self-defense than by anything else in the film. The boldly lit hallway, the eerie sights and sounds of the pregnancy just before the act, the riveting closeup of a finger upon a rotary phone, the terrifying disruption of the mundane when Dawson leaps from behind the window curtains — it’s a staggering exhibit of the director’s mastery. The answer to what made Dial M interesting to Hitchcock is twofold: confinement was an obsession roughly from Lifeboat until Rear Window and in some ways Dial M is an attempt at a commercially viable variant on the more experimental Rope. Perhaps more importantly, Dial M was released at the tail end of the Hollywood 3-D trend and Hitchcock evidently was interested in making a different kind of 3-D film, placing emphasis on carefully defining geographic space to add to the audience’s sense of involvement; the typically gimmicky uses of the effect are limited to the film’s most powerful and disturbing moments, its opening and closing climaxes — a hand reaching out toward us, and a key being handed to us. That the first instance is far more haunting than the second gives some clue as to why this film is slightly disappointing when compared to most of Hitchcock’s works of the 1950s.

Casting is also a problem. Although the picture is the auspicious first teaming of Hitchcock with Grace Kelly, she creates a vast disconnect and not for the reasons often implied by some critics of the film (that she is too glamorous for the part, or that her acting is too primitive). In fact her delicate, understated, brilliant interpretation of Margot — especially as her destiny starts to slip out of her own control — is far greater proof of her talent than the film for which she won an Oscar, The Country Girl, or the part that made her famous in High Noon. The issue rather is that she completely overshadows the other two leads. Cummings is simply too shrimpy, too much of a restrained comedian, to be believable as a man who’d persuade someone like Margot to jeopardize her marriage; he’d previously worked with Hitchcock in Saboteur and presented similar problems therein. Milland just isn’t a charismatic actor, surely not enough to carry a film that hinges upon his being presented as a cold-hearted expert manipulator and killer; his own motives simply aren’t believable the way they might be with someone like, say, Cary Grant in the part. You can sense the problem particularly when he starts to unravel at the halfway point — he plays every setback as a major crisis then immediately makes a show of being disaffected, soulless. That disconnect, perhaps meant as a deliberate contradiction, makes the character — one we’re supposed to identify with at least part of the time, given the way his broken watch and phone call are played — less compelling.

One curious thing about Dial M for Murder is that it has appreciated in popularity the way few similar but seemingly superior offerings in Hitchcock’s catalog have. It borrows elements of its best scene from the outstanding and similarly claustrophobic and bleak Blackmail, anticipates Frenzy at its breathless climax, and points directly ahead to Hitchcock’s next (and possibly most perfect) film, Rear Window, in its specific confinement as well as the brilliant use of Kelly — and of course there are echoes throughout the film of Rope, though little of its intellectual or provocative subtext. So what makes it play so beautifully with modern audiences?

Frankly, I suspect it has little to do with the film’s dramatic strengths, ample as they may be. But it has aged extremely well from the angle of its sexual politics; to begin with, Hitchcock never bothers shaming Kelly’s character for having two lovers (further ammunition for the theory of Rebecca de Winter as secret feminist hero?). Tying in nicely with his general hatred of police and authority, he depicts in harrowing detail how investigators belittle and refuse to believe Margot’s story about being attacked and choked. Williams even has the line, in reference to her bruises, “You could have made those marks yourself.” It’s a sharp contrast to a modern film like The Hunt that takes pains to uphold the oversold narrative of assault victims as being chronic liars out to get mass quantities of innocent men. Lastly, the film and Kelly’s characterization of Margot is unusual and refreshing for the period; though her character isn’t the focus of the film, she upholds Hitchcock’s favored Woman Alone motif proudly and remains heroic and dignified in her quiet power, even when she’s temporarily defeated. That a sixty year-old film can be so monstrously entertaining as this without fitting poorly with modern perceptions of social problems and sexual inequality is perhaps more impressive than any of its content in and of itself. This is another reason why, when it comes to classic Hollywood cinema, Hitchcock is in his own class.

[Based in part on a review posted in 2004.]

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